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A tsunami could be wave of the future.

Byline: Bob Welch / The Register-Guard

YACHATS - The brochure has been pushpinned to the cabin's bulletin board for as long as I can remember. "Tsunami!" it's titled, above a graphic of a person fleeing a towering wave.

Yeah, right. For years, that's been my attitude.

I'm one of those people who saw the "tsunami warning" signs pop up on Highway 101 in recent years and thought the emergency-response folks had too much time on their hands. Or had seen one too many disaster movies. Or were trying to justify their existence in the same way Bigfoot hunters do.

No more. Last week, I read that brochure, word for word.

After seeing the footage of the Dec. 26 tsunami in Asia, I don't look at the ocean in quite the same way as I once did.

Saturday morning, as high tides toyed with a log that looked like a supersized telephone pole, I couldn't help but make the mental leap: If 3-foot waves can toss a multiton log around as if it's a Popsicle stick, what can a wall of water traveling at highway speed do to that log? And, more to the point, what could it do to me and my family and the kids playing pirates on the rock and the folks eating breakfast with an ocean view and the woman in the yellow rain slicker who's walking her dog?

Disasters make believers out of doubters. Open our eyes to possibilities we hadn't considered. Beg us to blow the dust off history and remember that, despite any bravado or complacency we might have as humans, nature bats last.

After the March 1964 Alaskan Earthquake, 9.2 on the Richter scale, more than 100 people died from the ensuing tsunami, 11 in Crescent City, Calif. At Beverly Beach State Park, between Newport and Depoe Bay, four children drowned when one of three waves slammed ashore in the night.

At Florence, a surge 8 feet high pushed up the Siuslaw River, ripping out pilings, knocking docks loose and jarring house trailers loose from their foundations.

As a boy, I remember stories of waves from that tsunami damaging a beach cabin across from ours. And Monday, I spoke with a Corvallis woman who, along with her four children, was staying at the Surftides Beach Resort in Lincoln City during the earthquake.

"The reports said Crescent City and some spots in Washington might be in danger, but nothing about Oregon," Bev Johnson said. "Suddenly, there was spray from a wave hitting our window - two to three stories up. I grabbed the kids, and we headed for higher ground."

If the Asian tsunami taught us anything, it's the unpredictability of how and when such waves can strike. For all the world's scientific sophistication, it's a tad unsettling to think that by the time Hawaii's Pacific Tsunami Warning Center issued a bulletin of the "possibility" of a tsunami, thousands were already dead.

And if something of that magnitude can happen in a place not known for tsunami activity, why would we think a place like Oregon, a more likely target, would be immune? Scientists now believe that, 300 years ago, Oregon and Washington were hit by a tsunami similar to the one that hit Asia - and may be more vulnerable than previously thought to another.

Oregon coastal communities "would be inundated," Jay Wilson, coordinator of the state's Earthquake and Tsunami Program, told Newsweek. And, remember, in the 40 years since the Alaskan earthquake, the coastal population has roughly doubled to more than 200,000 people.

While it's true that the Pacific's "Ring of Fire" region is dotted with six tsunami-detection buoys, it's also true that half were out of service last week. Even with a warning system working, there's no certainty you'd get a warning.

Ultimately, confusion about what was happening and an unwillingness to retreat once the first wave hit added to the death toll in Asia.

I'm not letting my new respect for tsunamis hamper my love for, or interaction with, the Pacific Ocean. But as I watched the waves last week, I also considered where we'd head if one of them was the one nobody thought would come.
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Title Annotation:Columns
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Article Type:Column
Date:Jan 11, 2005
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